By Sarah Marshall
Low voter turn-out; low civic engagement; limited participation in town affairs by historically marginalized groups; barriers to participation: these are some of the issues that the new town charter hopes to address through various public participation mechanisms. One mechanism is the required semiannual meetings of district councilors with constituents, for example.
Another effort driven by the charter was the creation of a new town position, Community Participation Officer (CPO). In its first three years of implementation, this responsibility (for which no new money was budgeted) has been shared by three Town employees who bring different skills to the task: Brianna Sunryd, Jennifer Moyston, and Angela Mills. I spoke with all of them earlier this fall to learn how their work has unfolded.
Brianna Sunryd, the Communications Manager for Town Hall, said that the team spent its initial months assessing the community’s needs and building its work plan. She described her pieces of the work as developing strategies for community outreach, involvement, and communications, and using information technologies in innovative ways. To support participation in the decennial census by all parts of the community – some of which were very hesitant – the CPOs developed plans for outreach, in-person meetings, and activities. During the summer of 2019, the team created and distributed census-related kits for children. Then, just as efforts ramped up in early 2020, the pandemic hit and changed the direction of all CPO efforts.
During the pandemic, Brianna focused on implementation of the Zoom meeting platform throughout Town government, to enable both the internal work of Town Hall and the many public meetings. As others have noted, the convenience of Zoom (for those with Internet access) led to a marked increase in attendance at public meetings, in views of recorded meetings (most meetings were not recorded to video before the pandemic), and participation in committees, now possible from one’s home. Now that at least some in-person meetings are likely to be permitted in the coming months, a pressing question is how to integrate livestreaming and remote participation with in-person meetings in a way that is not awkward for participants. Another means by which residents can follow and engage in local issues is the Engage Amherst platform, launched in February of 2021. With this platform, residents can post questions on subjects such as the North Amherst Library expansion, the Hickory Ridge Golf Course acquisition, and the financing plan for the major capital projects, and receive quick responses, all of which stay publicly available on the site. (In fact, just as this post was being written, the Town announced two additional civic participate tools – click here for the press release – for trial use in the next 10 days.)
One limitation to participation in town affairs by some residents is a language barrier. The town does not have the capability (that is, funding) to provide real-time translation services or to translate documents, announcements, or webpages in Spanish or other languages. Fortunately, Angela Mills (Executive Assistant to the Town Manager) is fluent in Spanish and can provide translation to an extent. Unfortunately, automated translation services for town resources or meetings are not yet satisfactory. (At the urging of the Community Safety Working Group, the Town is hoping to identify funds for stipends for committee volunteers who must pay for child care, transportation, or other expenses enabling them to serve – an additional set of barriers to participation.)
Jennifer Moyston, Administrative Assistant to the Town Manager, grew up in Amherst. The focus of her CPO work has been to address diversity and inclusion gaps through trust-building with minority communities and the development and promotion of cultural events. Before the pandemic, Jennifer regularly accompanied LSSE (now the Recreation Department) staff to apartment complexes to engage with parents and children, and visited the Amherst Survival Center to be a resource for visitors with concerns or needs that the Town could address. The pandemic shuttered these in-person gatherings, but more recently she has been able to accompany the Mobile Market on its rounds, to set up a table at a bit of a remove and be available to chat. Jennifer’s regular appearance at the Mobile Market sites helped make contacts with Town staff less threatening, at least during these visits.
Another important pandemic response was to begin a Mask for All initiative in conjunction with Anika Lopes Millinery (the business of the incoming D4 councilor). Jennifer said that 17 sewers created more than 500 masks using materials donated by 19 individuals in the months before cloth masks became readily available for purchase. Another 100 masks were donated by a business. Altogether, almost 100 people received masks through this effort.
Cultural events that were developed, highlighted, or promoted over the past three years included the Town’s first-ever Chinese Lunar New Year program, the Town’s program in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. (separate from the annual breakfast), Black History Month programming, and, most recently, the enormously successful Juneteenth, co-sponsored by the Civil War Tablets Committee and the Mill District. Jennifer hopes to further develop the town’s observances of cultural holidays and milestones.
Pre-pandemic, the main areas of Angela Mills’ CPO work were (1) planning the inaugural ceremony for the first Council; (2) assisting councilors with planning and conduct of the required meetings mentioned above; and (3) attending district meetings to assist constituents with questions or complaints about town services, completion of Community Activity Forms by which residents indicate interest in committee service. During the pandemic, Angela was the staff person in contact with residents required to quarantine at home, connecting them with food, rental support, and grant applications. Once vaccination drives began, Angela attended the clinics to provide Spanish-language translation and outreach. She also worked with the new Covid Ambassadors on their public outreach and responses to inquiries or complaints made to the Covid Concerns hotline.
With pandemic-related efforts diminishing, the CPOs held a retreat this fall to review their work and plan for the future. We will share that plan when it is available. In the meantime, you can email your thoughts to them at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org.